Composting: Join the Revolution

The so-called brandling or humus worm thrives in litter. They enjoy great popularity among a number of experimentally inclined gardeners. What is so special about these small worms?

My theory is that in worm composting or vermicomposting (Greek vermi: worm), we have something completely new that has little in common with conventional composting, and most importantly is superior to any previous method. The final product, worm castings, which is the term for worm excrement, is not comparable to other types of compost. It represents a new level of quality.

At this point, I want to quote the well-known words of former German chancellor Helmut Kohl: “The crucial thing is what comes out at the end.” This applies to humus worms in both the literal and the metaphorical senses. This “new” method is able to meet the modern demands of nature, environmental, and climate protection much better than any previous approach.

There is an ever-increasing discrepancy between the waste of natural power and resources in conventional composting methods (unavoidable losses in the forms of gases and liquids during hot composting) and the growing need to protect nature and the environment (through sustainable development to curb global warming). A solution is desperately needed. Composting is a part of the battle of opinions between humus management and ecological gardening and farming on the one side and Justus von Liebig’s so-called mineral theory, which serves as the foundation of the chemical industry and conventional agriculture, on the other side. The remainder of this book shall demonstrate the superiority of the former in detail.

It’s not just agriculture, but rather society in general, that is facing significant changes on a revolutionary scale. Crisis capitalism and easy credit pose a danger to sustainable development and the worldwide fight against climate change that is already underway. New ideas need to be supported and published so that they can eventually be implemented.

The biggest hurdle is for people who have been convinced by the new methods and their advantages to promote them. I hope to find allies in this cause, which, if widely spread, would prove beneficial not only to small-scale gardeners but also to society at large. It would also serve to increase the common awareness of the need to protect the soil and the life within it. Food production is relevant to everyone, because before all other priorities are addressed, people need to eat, drink, and clothe themselves. This makes agriculture the foundation of everything else in the economy.

Since agricultural production is being practiced by fewer and fewer people and a single farmer in an advanced Western country now provides food for 127 people, most people are separated from the production itself and don’t take much interest in it. We small-scale gardeners help to close this gap and feel a strong connection to the soil and to plants, nature, and the climate.

Rest, relaxation, humility, open-mindedness, a connection with nature, contact with animals and plants, and sustainable management and fertilization of the soil are good for us. People do not find themselves by rejecting anything new and clinging to old habits, but by developing and learning new things and coming to terms with them and by taking an interest in new ideas and doing their part to ensure that they are put into action.

With inspiration from working and shaping my garden, I’ve positioned myself to consider all of the issues connected with it, which has led me to feel an intimate connection to the great human questions of war and peace, environmental and climate protection, and the fight against world hunger.

Alternative Composting Methods

Alternative composting methods can be found in organic farming, which actually developed quite early as a response to the dominant interpretation and application of Liebig’s mineral theory by the artificial fertilizer industry. There is no single methodology of organic growing, but its goal is universal. The various trends in organic growing can cause some confusion to an outsider. It is therefore important to properly classify and evaluate humus management.

The true masters of alternative composting are the practitioners of biodynamic agriculture. Using various additives and preparations, their aim is to influence the composting process toward their goals. They are specialists in plant extracts and the application of liquid manure. The biodynamic method has its origins in anthroposophist Dr. Rudolf Steiner’s “agricultural course” from the year 1924. According to his teachings, the organic matter in a compost pile forms a relationship with its environment under certain conditions that takes on a life of its own.

The observation of cosmic rhythms (gardening based on the lunar calendar) and the use of so-called preparations make this one of the most sophisticated alternative agricultural methods (Bockemühl 1981). The method requires a certain degree of specialized knowledge. Producing plant extracts and applying liquid manure in compost production take significant effort and isn’t for everyone.

In my view, a particularly interesting aspect of this method is that it attempts to limit the temperature of the prepared compost to 104°F (40°C), at which point water or liquid manure is poured through a furrow on the top of the compost pile. Proponents of this method take the justifiable view that the germ and seed death caused by heating the decomposing material to 158°F (70°C) or more is unnecessary and detrimental to humus formation. Composting in the conventional sense does not exist in nature, just sheet mulching. According to Rohrhofer (1983), the efficacy of soil is limited in organic farming by the use of hot composting.

In contrast to the biodynamic movement, proponents of organic-biological farming reject composting as a matter of principle. In their view, it’s a waste of energy, an accumulation of large amounts of organic material in a way that does not appear in nature. This agricultural method originates in Switzerland and stems from the Farmers’ Homeland Movement (Bauernheimatbewegung), founded in the 1930s and headed by Dr. Hans Müller. He worked closely with the German physician Dr. Hans Peter Rusch (2004).

Advocates of organic-biological farming are in favor of the decomposition process taking place in the same place where it will be used (i.e. near the plants) so that the full biological potential of the living organic material is transferred to the soil and to the plants. This is in accordance with their theory on the cycle of living matter. They advocate for year-round ground cover or sheet mulching that covers the full growing area, which does not lead to any appreciable temperature increase.

I don’t have any objection to mulching, quite the contrary. But I wouldn’t want to entirely do without well-humified compost; it’s indispensable to potted plants, cultivating seedlings and improving local soil conditions, as well as to fertilizing a small garden. In the past, scientists have wracked their brains over how to lower decomposition temperatures in compost piles in order to improve composting efficiency.

An excerpt from Compost Revolution by Helmut Schimmel, now available from Acres U.S.A. 

Helmut Schimmel is a longtime authority on the care and reproduction of earthworms and the production of valuable worm humus. He draws from his great wealth of knowledge acquired over decades of study and practice to yield this single, definitive book on the practice, available for the first time in English.

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